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17 March 2021

Boris Johnson’s new Vote Leave foreign policy is dangerous for the world

The Prime Minister is further undermining the global order that prevents major powers from going to war.

By Paul Mason

Before we can sensibly debate the government’s Integrated Review of defence and foreign policy, which was published on 16 March, it must be translated into English. As with all official documents on defence and security, the hardest questions are smothered in waffle. Britain, it claims, is a “soft power superpower”; our army battalion stationed in Estonia is a “tripwire… presence”; the threat of terror comes from Islamists, Northern Ireland and those “driven by other motivations” (the report doesn’t mention the alleged fascist terror cell discovered in 2017 inside the British Army).

The Integrated Review was trailed as “the most radical reassessment of [the UK’s] place in the world since the end of the Cold War”. The outcome is a major change in Britain’s foreign policy that has been debated neither in parliament nor in public, and which political parties representing 60 per cent of the electorate can take no ownership of and should not support.

The crucial paragraph promises that Britain will “move from defending the status quo within the post-Cold War international system to dynamically shaping the post-Covid order, extending it in the future frontiers of cyberspace and space, and protecting democratic values”. 

Translated into English, this means the Johnson government wants to turn Britain from a stabilising force in the world order into a disruptive one; that Brexit, far from being an accident or “over”, was just the first move by a nationalist clique that has hijacked the machinery of government.

In fact, as the review states, the Tories now regard the multilateral global order as effectively finished. “Competition,” the authors write, “will increase the strains on the existing multilateral architecture, weakening established rules and norms that govern international conduct… where multilateral approaches are blocked, nations will likely caucus in smaller, regional or like-minded groups.”

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With the euphemisms removed, it sounds like a roadmap back to the kind of interventions Britain staged in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Falkland Islands. In 2018 Donald Trump caused G7 leaders to gasp with dismay by refusing to sign a communique committing to “promote a rules-based international order”. Three years on, though Trump has gone, his spirit lives on in this sorry document.

[See also: Britain should focus not on the Indo-Pacific but on Europe’s own geopolitical neighbourhood]

Let’s be clear about the real strategic threat to the United Kingdom. It is neither Russian tanks, nor Chinese cyber-attacks, nor Islamist terror: it is that the post-1945 global order falls apart. As a medium-sized country that has voluntarily broken away from a major pillar of the global trade and security architecture, with a 25 fighting ship-strong navy and a heavily globalised supply chain, our entire security depends on preserving the rules-based international order.

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For certain, that order is under threat – from a Russian nationalist dictatorship, a Chinese leadership determined to claw its way to strategic parity with the US, and the rise of “non-state actors” in the chaotic space created by American hubris and isolationism over the past 20 years.

Strategic realism demands we recognise that threat: a US that can elect Trump, a French electorate that could elect Marine Le Pen and an India whose president dreams of creating a Hindu ethno-state are all giant dangers to the rules-based order, especially if climate change and economic stagnation turn geopolitics into a negative-sum game.

But there is a difference between realism and fatalism. By accepting, implicitly, that the current rules-based order is finished, and committing the UK to doing more about the “systemic challenge” of China, Johnson threatens to further undermine the architecture that keeps major powers from fighting each other. For good measure he is proposing to reverse the UK’s nuclear disarmament path, adding warheads to the stockpile instead of removing them, with no specific political or technical rationale.

If Johnson’s strategy is enacted, Britain will become a kind of global shapeshifter: appearing now as the “leading European ally in Nato” but not Europe’s active partner or ally; sailing its under-equipped aircraft carrier off the coast of China, causing headlines but ensuring nobody’s security; currying favour with elite torturers from Ankara to Cairo to Riyadh, while lecturing the world about human rights.

We are promised that Britain, which sold one of its only chip manufacturers to China, will become a “science and technology superpower”. Britain, a country that has allegedly breached international law in the past 12 months, will “sit at the heart of a network of like-minded countries and flexible groupings, committed to protecting human rights and upholding global norms”.

Even though it is muffled in Whitehall language, and few voters even care about the issues under discussion, the review is a turning point. Not because Britain will necessarily do any of the things proposed, but because even by stating these new principles, Johnson has scrapped the informal bipartisan agreement over British grand strategy that has persisted at Westminster since the end of the Cold War. 

 [See also: Labour has no idea how to respond to the increase in Trident nuclear warheads]

Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and the minor parties cannot accept a strategic posture that makes Britain a destabilising force in the world: mercurial to its allies, hostile to Europe, and sending its armed forces to operate in regions where it has no strategic interest. They can, and must, oppose a grand strategy premised on the collapse of order in the world, and adopt an alternative aimed at saving and strengthening the order we actually have.

Because the “network of like-minded countries and flexible groupings” Johnson imagines is a route to global conflict in the mid-21st century. China is rising. Unless a worker-led revolution overthrows its billionaire communist elite, it will reshape most of Asia around its anti-democratic, and indeed anti-humanist, values. The US, meanwhile, has become a fragile democracy, capable of empowering a racist, with the Republican Party now the willing host to fascist parasites. 

The challenge for the core remaining democracies – the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Japan – is to contain this systemic rivalry within the existing framework, which includes the UN, the Geneva Conventions, the non-proliferation treaties, Nato, the World Trade Organisation and numerous other pieces of paper that place mutual obligations on states. That, effectively, should also be the task of democrats in the US, Russia and China.

Yes, the UK’s trade security relies on freedom of commercial navigation through the choke points around the South China Sea. But no, sending an aircraft carrier to that region does not demonstrate that we can ensure such freedom of navigation by force. In fact, it ensures the opposite. Because every penny wasted on naval deployments beyond the North Atlantic theatre demonstrates to Vladimir Putin that we are not serious about conventional deterrence there.

China could attack and conquer Taiwan with impunity, just as it has unwound democracy and the democratic opposition in Hong Kong with impunity. The way to avoid it doing so is to rebuild mutual relationships of trust, based on China’s clear interest in the preservation of globalised economic trade.

The payload of the review will come later this month, in the form of a “command paper” on defence that is likely to make further cuts to an army already 9,000 soldiers below its minimum threshold of 82,000 regular personnel. After the recent Nagorno-Karabakh War, in which Armenian tanks were wiped out by cheap drones built in Israel and Turkey, it is likely that the UK’s tracked and armoured forces will be slimmed down, with the Tempest jet programme potentially subject to a rethink.

But the task of defence planners is to configure the armed forces to match the threat. Since 2015 they have been clear that, owing to defence cuts and delayed modernisation, Britain still falls well short of being able to deploy a “credible warfighting division”, should conflict occur. After reading the review it looks like an overlong justification for abandoning that core Nato commitment in favour of a “tilt to the Indo-Pacific”.

Labour’s shadow defence secretary, John Healey, was right to reject the proposed tilt to Asia, and to warn against cuts to army personnel. Now the party, and indeed all progressive parties, need to go further.

The Integrated Review is not “Britain’s foreign policy”, it is the codified world view of Vote Leave. It was not Labour that walked away from bipartisan consensus over geostrategy but the Tories. Labour and other progressive parties will find strong allies among Nato member states, including the US, if they state firmly and clearly that, when a progressive government replaces that of Boris Johnson, the entire vision will be scrapped.

Above all, once the Scottish electorate absorbs the true meaning of the review, it should bring some realism to the debate on independence. If Scotland leaves the UK and joins the EU, it will then have a hard border with a country consigned to permanent English nationalist government and determined to compete with and disrupt the very thing Scotland wants to become. Handling that, and absorbing a share of the UK’s £2.1trn debt, will not be easy. Deposing the Tories, and delivering a permanent constitutional rewrite that leaves Scotland virtually autonomous, now sounds like a much easier way of getting what most people want.

We need an active multilateralism in British politics, both in diplomacy and nuclear disarmament. And the Integrated Review has made the arguments for a progressive alliance to deliver it even stronger.